Transforming Regional Manufacturing
As originally appearing in The Providence Journal

By James T. Brett

Step into any high-school classroom on career day, or at an unemployment center, and you are not likely to hear discussions about “manufacturing” as a career possibility. That’s too bad, because as a New England Council report pointed out last year, today’s manufacturing opportunities are not necessarily what you might expect.

Parents and grandparents often describe difficult physical labor in dark, dangerous factories when they talk about manufacturing, and try to steer their offspring toward other careers. However, today’s advanced manufacturing setting is more likely to be a safe, clean-room environment, requiring employees with highly developed computer and/or engineering skills.

According to the council report, “Advanced Manufacturing in a Networked World,” today’s advanced manufacturing does not rely on low-cost labor, but rather on skills and creativity to produce highly specialized and complex products. The industry does not exist as a set of isolated individual firms, but in a talent-rich network of engineers, entrepreneurs, scientists, financiers, machinists and others.

Advanced manufacturing contributes nearly 9 percent of total economic activity in New England, ranging from 4.5 percent to 11 percent in the individual states, and nearly 5 percent of total jobs. Its potential is enormous throughout the entire region.

The question is how to help create, promote and sustain advanced manufacturing as more and more of the region’s traditional manufacturing base disappears. Advanced manufacturing creates well-paid jobs that require specialized skills. We need to be strategic in our thinking and creative in our approach to spur the growth of this sector.

A national manufacturing strategy would provide a critical framework for thinking about how to reinvent manufacturing. There is strong bipartisan support for this concept in Congress, and the recently introduced National Manufacturing Strategy Act of 2011 should be moved fast through the legislative process. This bill calls for developing a national manufacturing strategy, integrating new thinking about the sector into the annual federal budget process and other government efforts to build a new manufacturing base in America.

We must look at ways to nurture the emerging advanced manufacturing industry that is beginning to develop around us. For example, the Make It in America Block Grant concept (used in Rhode Island) was prompted by the wide array of ideas that exist in small manufacturing businesses but don’t quite have the resources to blossom into full-fledged job-creation opportunities. The approach would give states and communities struggling the most — and that includes much of our region — help with resources to retool, retrofit, adapt, train and re-train employees to advance production of clean-energy components, high-technology products and other advanced products. It is targeted help for those small manufacturers that can offer the greatest promise for job creation.

We need to align our education and training efforts so that students and those changing jobs know what skills are needed, and how to attain them.

Finally, we need to link existing manufacturing networks to economic-development groups and management consultants.

Through a more focused collaboration of industry, government and education, advanced manufacturing can be substantially expanded. Industry specialists can share best practices and services, government agencies can better target financial and workforce-development support, and educators can promote knowledge of and enthusiasm for advanced manufacturing. We have an opportunity to add 7,500-8,500 advanced manufacturing jobs across New England annually, with average individual annual compensation approaching $80,000. That’s worth our attention.

James T. Brett is president and chief executive of the New England Council, a nonpartisan alliance of businesses, academic and health institutions, and other public and private organizations.

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